University unchallenged

UK university language centres are consistently good, especially at teaching, our analysis of British Council inspection reports reveals

Britain’s university language centres are routinely good at teaching English. That is the message from an analysis of the reports of the British Council inspectors. A quick glance at the two charts on this page will confirm that.

The chart for the UK as a whole, on the bottom of the page, shows that the most common score is zero points of strength with most schools clustered between 0 and 8. The university chart peaks at five with almost every centre scoring between five and nine.

In statistical terms, the university sector has a higher mode and a higher mean average score – 7.9 as opposed to 4.4 for all accredited centres (see below).

As you can see above, universities also have a lower standard deviation of 2.9 as opposed to 4. And just to make our academic readers even more excited, 80 per cent of university centres are within one standard deviation from the mean.

For those of us who are not into statistical analysis, this simply means that university language centres are astonishingly consistent, and, since the mean average is nearly eight strengths, they are consistently very good.

Not that this should come as a surprise: UK universities dominate the international rankings, as we report on page 5 of this supplement. And when it comes to teaching English, their language centres have one distinct advantage over most of the rest of the market: they attract more highly qualified teachers with more experience for the simple reason that they pay much, much more.

Not that teaching conditions are perfect. Like every other ELT sector, the university sector has become casualised, most teachers are employed on hourly short-term contracts, just like everywhere else. The difference is the going rate in the university sector is around £39 an hour, three times as much as most teachers earn in a London private language school. The prestige of working for a university department is an added bonus. Not surprisingly then, university language centres are most likely to excel in teaching and learning. Not only do fifty per cent of universities receive an area of strength from the British Council in academic staff profile but an astonishing 83 per cent receive one in teaching, based on classes observed by inspectors.


The question of the quality of teaching in British universities, as opposed to the quality of research, has become a hot political issue in the UK, as we explain on the next page. Drilling down into the details of the British Council inspections suggest, when it comes to the language departments, there is nothing to worry about. If you look at the table below, you can see the overall scores for teaching and learning from the British Council.

Only 17 per cent of universities score below 70 per cent, all the rest are comfortably in the top third of accredited centres in the country. The universities, we have to admit, are not perfect.

They have excellent learning resources, but don’t score so well on premises, with the language centre often hidden away in a less glamorous part of the campus. They don’t score highly on leisure programmes – one of the most common areas of strength in other sectors – and some get needs of improvement for publicity. And the British Council inspectors have warned a number of them to improve their care of under 18s. If you’re over 18, though, and you’re looking for excellent teaching, then a UK university language department could be the place for you.